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Blame game begins as ship flounders

Haldia, May 17: As Sigitika Biru floundered on a shallow bed of sand with its potentially hazardous cargo of soda ash and diesel oil, the Coast Guard and the Haldia Port Trust passed the buck, each saying the other was responsible for disaster management.

“We are the coordinating agency in tackling any environmental disaster in the coastal area and it is not our job to try and prevent pollution. It is the port trust authorities who should look into the matter,” said R.K. Wadhwa, the Coast Guard commandant.

But senior port trust officials requesting anonymity said the Coast Guard should tackle oil spills and other threats to the environment. The Coast Guard station, however, is not fully equipped for the job, they added.

Wadhwa said a Coast Guard aircraft had made a sortie over the area where the leaking ship was stranded and had reported nothing alarming.

“They reported back saying that the colour of the sea water around the wreck was normal, indicating that neither the soda ash (sodium carbonate) nor the diesel was spilling out,” he said. The ship is carrying 6,327 tonnes of soda ash and 150 tonnes of diesel.

The aircraft was in the area from 6.30 to 8.30 in the morning. It carried out another sortie after 3.30 pm.

According to reports reaching the Coast Guard and the port trust authorities, Sigitika Biru had developed a crack in its hold number one. “It is possible that with the choppy seas and the action of the tide, more cracks will develop, spilling the cargo and the oil,” a senior port trust official said.

If it spills out, the soda ash will temporarily turn the water in the vicinity of the ship highly alkaline, killing all marine life. In a short time though, the effect will wear off and fish and animals will reappear. But the oil is a matter of concern, with the threat of a major slick.

Experts said the disaster could have been avoided had the captain been more experienced. “The captain should have looked into the damage much earlier. It seems he had decided to ignore it till he reached his next port of call, Chittagong. But the damage was aggravated when the ship ran through the cyclone raging off the south Indian coast on Tuesday and Wednesday,” an experienced mariner said.

According to port trust sources here, the ship can be salvaged to keep the area safe for other vessels only after its owners give clearance.

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